First released in 1987 and set in 1955, Angel Heart tells the story of Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke).
With a name like Harry Angel, it’s perhaps not surprising that Harry is a private investigator. Harry operates out of New York. He’s got a shabby apartment. He wears wrinkled clothes. He rarely shaves. He smokes almost constantly. (In a rare moment of comedy, the camera catches Harry blithely emptying a full ashtray in the middle of the street.) Harry looks like he reeks of tobacco, beer, sweat, and lost dreams. And yet, it’s difficult not to like Harry. He’s got a charming smile, even if his face is often bruised from his latest beating. He speaks in a low whisper and it’s hard not to get the feeling that Harry is actually kind of shy. He’s incredibly sleazy but there’s something about him that just makes the viewer want to take care of him.
Harry is hired by a mysterious man named Louis Cyphere (Robert De Niro, cheerfully overacting). Louis wants Harry to track down a singer named Johnny Favor. As Cyphere explains it, he did a favor for Johnny and Johnny has yet to pay Cyphere what he owes. Johnny has been suffering from PTSD ever since he served in World War II. When last seen, Johnny was receiving electroshock treatment in an upstate hospital.
Harry’s search for Johnny leads him into an increasingly complex and disturbing conspiracy. He meets a doctor who is addicted to morphine and, when the doctor turns up dead, Harry coolly uses the dead man’s shoe to light his match. Eventually, Harry’s investigation leads him to New Orleans, where he meets both Johnny’s wife (Charlotte Rampling) and Johnny’s unacknowledged daughter, Epiphany (Lisa Bonet). As Harry searches for Johnny, he deals with strange visions of his own mysterious past. He sees himself wandering around Times Square shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Harry also finds himself having to deal with the fact that almost everyone that he talks to ends up being brutally murdered. Every time that Harry tries to quit the case, Cyphere offers him more money. (Cyphere tends to show up whenever Harry finds himself on the verge of abandoning his search.)
Angel Heart moves at its own deliberate pace. In fact, the first hour can feel a bit slow but that first hour definitely pays off during the second half of the film. By the time that Harry starts to truly uncover what has happened to Johnny, the audience actually cares about Harry and is actually worried about what’s going to happen to him when he reaches the end of the case. Mickey Rourke was (and is) an eccentric actor but he’s at his most effective in Angel Heart. A lesser actor would have just played Harry as being a typical hardboiled detective. Rourke plays Harry as being a lost soul, a vulnerable man who is often as confused and scared as the people that he’s looking for. By the end of the film, Harry realizes that the answer to the mystery was right in front of them and his look of despair is surprisingly powerful. If De Niro gives a good performance that is almost totally on the surface, Rourke gives the type of performance that allows the audience to explore what’s going on beneath the surface of a character who many would initially view as being a cliché. Mickey Rourke’s Harry Angel is right up there with Bogart’s Sam Spade and Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes. He’s a familiar character who also seems to be a human being.
Full of sex, violence, and increasingly disturbing imagery, Angel Heart is not for everyone. Alan Parker’s direction emphasizes the darkness of Harry’s world and the bleakness of his situation. The film ends with a twist that may not be totally unexpected but which is still undeniably disturbing. The more you think about it, the most disturbing it gets. Angel Heart is an atmospheric and intelligent chiller. It’s existential horror at its most nightmarish.